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Top Burlington officials hear Cone’s concerns about surge in new Covid cases

A conference call with representatives of the region’s largest hospital chain has apparently left Burlington’s municipal leaders feeling a bit queasy about the latest wave of coronavirus infections.

This multiparty conversation, which took place on Monday, enabled representatives of Greensboro-based Cone Health to brief Burlington’s top brass and their Guilford County counterparts on the local impact of COVID-19’s Omicron variant, which is credited with a recent surge in coronavirus infections all over the globe.    Among those who took part in the call were Burlington’s mayor Jim Butler and the city’s mayor pro tem, Harold Owen, who subsequently shared what they learned with the rest of the council during a monthly work session later that day.

According to Butler, the Omicron variant has placed an enormous strain on Cone Health’s hospitals throughout the Triad, including Alamance Regional Medical Center in Burlington.

“Cone Health is so overburdened that they’ve diverted ambulances to other locations,” the mayor recalled during the work session, “and the same surge that Cone Health is referring to seems to be statewide…It sounds like the governor is going to make a statement later in the week.”

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Butler’s account is largely corroborated by Cone’s own hospitalization figures, which indicate that the number of Covid patients at its member hospitals more than tripled over the past month, from 58 on November 30 to 191 on January 2.

Public health officials at both the state and local level have also observed a jump in coronavirus infections since the arrival of the Omicron variant in the U.S.

On December 30, the N.C. Department of Health and Human reported a record-breaking 18,571 new coronavirus infections across North Carolina – a 60 percent increase over the state’s previous one-day high of 11,581 cases this past January. This same trend has also been documented by Alamance County’s health department, which logged a one-day high of 372 cases on December 30 – only to shatter that record with 377 new cases on January 2.

According to Doug Allred, a spokesman for Cone Health, the Omicron variant has put a heavy load on his company’s hospitals in spite of the comparatively mild reaction that most people have to this form of COVID-19.

“It’s so much [more] virulent,” Allred explained in an interview Tuesday, “and because there’s so many more people infected, you see more people hospitalized.”

Allred added that the resulting increase in hospitalizations has, indeed, posed a challenge for healthcare facilities across North Carolina.

“The current surge of COVID-19 cases is straining health care resources at Cone Health and at hospitals across the region and state,” he elaborated. “While our goal remains to treat people as close to home as possible, we are running into situations where it is best to divert ambulances from one hospital to another due to crowded emergency departments.

“People having heart attacks, strokes, traumas, or other life threatening conditions are [still] cared for at their closest appropriate hospitals,” he added. “We ask the public to help us by seeking COVID-19 tests at places other than our emergency departments. Alternatives can be found at www.conehealth.com/testing.”

The sheer scale of Omicron’s impact was brought home during Monday’s work session by Burlington’s city manager Hardin Watkins, who had also been on the line with Cone’s representatives earlier that day.  Watkins told the council that, according to Cone Health’s CEO Mary Jo Cagle, the positivity rate for Covid tests in Guilford County had shot up from the single digits just a few weeks ago to 32 percent on January 1.

“Their advice to everybody on the call,” the city manager added, “was to use their voice to tell everybody who needs a booster and is eligible for a booster to please get a booster.”

This renewed emphasis on coronavirus vaccines received a further boost on Tuesday when North Carolina’s governor Roy Cooper released an official statement on the spread of the Omicron variant.

“For people who have been vaccinated, and especially for those who have gotten boosters, the new Omicron variant has been less severe than previous surges,” Cooper stressed in this statement. “With these vaccines and boosters we have an amazing tool to save people’s lives and beat this pandemic – and we’ll keep our foot on the gas when it comes to getting more shots and more boosters administered.”

Angst over the growing number of new Covid cases seems to have even had an effect on the format of the council’s work session.

Although this monthly gathering had originally been billed as an in-person meeting, city officials made a last minute switch to a partially virtual format in response to concerns about the spread of coronavirus infections. In the end, four of the council’s five members joined select city employees in the city’s municipal conference room, while other participants, including city councilman Bob Ward, had to tune to the proceedings via the Zoom teleconferencing platform.

According to Morgan Lasater, a spokeswoman for the city of Burlington, city officials were already mulling this change in the work session’s format prior to the conference call with Cone Health.

“But I think it solidified that [decision],” she added in a conversation on Tuesday.

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